I’ve written an overview post in this series on Depression Central, and I hope you’ll have a look at that. Thanks.
Talking to a depressed partner can be more than frustrating. It can feel hopeless when you’re faced with a slammed door shutting you out completely or a furious attack full of blame and rejection. If your partner says anything, the words are likely either accusing you as the cause for the onset of severe depression, or angrily denying there’s any problem at all. Or you may not get any response and have to deal with someone who is emotionally absent, empty of feeling, gone from the relationship. This is likely the worst crisis you’ve ever faced with your partner.
The First Step
I discussed in a previous post some approaches recommended by prominent authors to the partners of depressed people and mentioned Julie Fast’s “big picture” plan as the one that made the most sense to me.
The first step toward healing for your partner, as well as yourself and the relationship, is to recognize that it’s depression driving you apart. Both partners need to be able to sense the early signs of its onset. But only your partner can make a commitment to action and take charge of their own treatment. There are some ways you can help with this process, but you can’t do it for them or take on the leading role in recovery. That’s not your job. You didn’t cause the problem. You can’t cure it.
I’d like to describe here how difficult that first step of recognition was in my case and then look at a method for getting a clearer picture of what’s happening, one that proved effective for my wife and for me. With the understanding and insight gained from that work, it slowly became possible to communicate without getting caught up in confrontations driven by depression.
Recognizing the Shadow in the House
As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, for years I had a very limited understanding of what depression could do. Apart from the feelings of bleakness and despair, I never grasped that so many other things I was experiencing were linked to this condition. That’s important to know because a partner may be in treatment for depression but not be dealing with all its effects and distortions of thought and feeling.
I assumed that other symptoms, now so familiar to those who have tried to educate themselves about this condition, were either a part of my nature or were caused by some external circumstance. The anxiety, the obsessive way of thinking, the inability to focus and mental blank-outs seemed to be limitations that I could not change, even though they were by no means permanent.
My constant negative thinking and the shame I felt seemed justified by my inner failings. Projecting negative judgments about myself into the minds and attitudes of others also felt like reality. That’s the way they must be judging me. Everyone should think badly of me because I was empty inside.
On the other hand, I blamed my wife for the problems I imagined were plaguing our relationship. I could certainly see that I was contributing to them, but that didn’t stop me from raging at her and our kids for everthing – and for nothing.
All of this made any real communication about what was happening completely impossible. I cast around me a net of control to capture and hold everything still. Most of my crazy behavior was based on fear of ripping that net. Everything I saw felt like part of me, an extension of my nervous system. On the surface, I was enraged at each unexpected tremor, sudden shift, raised voice, spontaneous action.
But anger can be a mask for fear, and inwardly I often burned in fear, even panic. Any effort by my wife to tell me what she was seeing in me and the effect it was having on her and our children only prompted more anger as I denied I had any problem and shut her out even more.
How did we begin to cut through the defenses and barriers to real communication? At calmer moments, we applied some tools we had learned from a therapist and gradually retrained our reactions to each other. That process made a breakthrough possible, but it was a long time coming.
Ideas on Coping with a Depressed Partner
As Julie Fast suggests in Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, making lists of what works with your partner and yourself is a helpful starting point. That process begins by writing down changes in behavior and learning how those changes relate to the symptoms of depression.
Then, it’s important to list the specific actions, tones of voice, words and physical gestures – everything you perceive when the familiar partner is slipping away into depression. These steps make it clear that depressed partners are no longer the same people you’ve known but have been transformed by a condition they may not recognize at all or just can’t control. Next, think about your own responses to what the “new” and estranged partners are doing. By writing down those reactions – not just the feelings but also what you’ve said and done – it may be possible to separate the responses that seemed to get nowhere from those that helped move toward a truer dialogue.
Julie Fast gives many examples of how to focus on what works, but she also understands how hard it is. Faced with irrational and abusive attacks that threaten the core relationship and tear into one’s own self-esteem, no one can stand back and calmly set aside the raw emotions of the moment. For one thing, the “well” partners have plenty of issues of their own. They may have experience with depression, anxiety, fears of abandonment, damaged self-esteem, a history of abuse. Everyone has vulnerabilities, and it is often those dimensions that are the targets of of a depressed partner’s abuse.
To be most effective, though, learning from such methods has to be shared, if at all possible. The burden can’t fall on one person. In our case, I had enough periods when depression receded that I could work with my wife in therapy and begin practicing ways of catching myself early on. That didn’t stop repeated episodes of illness, but it did give my wife something to appeal to when I started going into a tailspin. She could tell me what she was observing before I got out of control – the initial irritability, obsessive thinking, secluding myself, constant frowning, never looking directly at her. Her ability to do this gave me pause because I could see where I was heading. If I could admit to her that she was right, I was getting depressed, we could both focus on the illness instead of getting into a blaming match.
Many depressed partners are beyond reach and refuse to talk at all. Even in those cases, though, working through this method alone at least helps partners of the depressed avoid self-blame or the trap of believing they can fix the problem on their own.
But no matter how severe the depression, the effects of abuse and irrationality are real and can’t be allowed to continue. It’s especially important for the unreachable partners to face the consequences of the pain and damage they inflict on their familes. If nothing else works, a boundary has to be sharply drawn. More than once, I faced an ultimatum from my wife, and that forced me to acknowledge the havoc I was causing and to get serious about treatment. As addicts often say, it wasn’t until they lost everything that they finally admitted they were out of control and could begin recovery. Unchecked depression can be that bad. The illness pushes everyone affected by it toward destruction, and it can take extreme measures to stop it.
These methods helped us avoid the extreme, but every relationship has different needs. Does this one sound feasible in your case? Have you found any method that works for you?